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The double life of Emily Pauline Johnson’s Poetry


FEB 28, 2023 | ISSUE 11

Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake

A printed poem is experienced visually─text displays the whole poem at once, and readers contemplate rhythm, emphasis, and pacing for themselves. Readers also rely on editors and critics for expert opinions on interpretation. Yet performance is a differently constrained spatial and temporal experience for the audience: their own prior knowledge and experience influences how they perceive what they see and hear moment by moment. The performer controls the time and space that the poem fills using her body and uses pauses, breaths, movement, gesture, emphasis, volume, rhythm, and pacing to embody the poem and provoke meanings that cannot be expressed in the usual textual conventions of printed poetry.

One performer who notably put poetry into action was E. Pauline Johnson Tekahionwake (1861-1913), an Indigenous artist from Six Nations who used her work to renegotiate negative images of Indigenous people in Canadian culture. She began publishing poetry in the 1880s and toured Canada, the U.S, and Britain to perform in music halls from 1892 to...